This is a time of year when we are especially cautious about catching colds, contracting the flu, and avoiding other germ-generated illnesses. With winter approaching, most of us are spending more time indoors and near others who may be spreading germs that can make us sick. Consequently, we may be more vulnerable to contagions.
Fortunately, most of us know the steps to take in order to minimize the potential of getting sick. We maintain an appropriate distance from people who are coughing and sneezing, we wash our hands and hard surfaces regularly, and we are careful to get enough sleep to keep our resistance high.
Still, we may be less aware of another source of contagion that can influence our well-being… Experts and researchers have long known that emotions, too, can be contagious; in fact, they call this phenomenon Emotional Contagion (EC). Transmission can happen in ways remarkably similar to how germs are spread. For example, prolonged proximity to someone who is experiencing and displaying strong emotions can increase the probability of their transmitting those emotions to us. The state of our own emotions can make us more vulnerable to “catching” the emotions of others. When we are tired, frustrated, or depressed, our emotional vulnerability increases. Furthermore, some people are naturally more vulnerable to catching the emotions of others.
Unfortunately, EC has implications for more than our mood. Negative emotions we catch from others can lead to depression, increased anxiety, insomnia, and even heart disease. Put simply, prolonged exposure to negative emotions can damage our psychological and physical health.
On the other hand, contracting the emotions of another is not always bad. In fact, many emotions lift our spirits, renew our energy, and build connections with others. Being around people who are consistently happy, optimistic, confident, and loving can lead to us feeling similarly. The bad news there, though, is that negative emotions, such as anger, pain, fear, and disgust, tend to be more contagious than positive feelings. They can be caught more quickly and have a greater, longer lasting impact than positive emotions. Our evolutionary history makes us more conscious of and susceptible to potential threats, even though the threats may be emotional rather than physical.
The good news is that we can influence the level of vulnerability we have to the emotions of others. Sometimes we seek to protect ourselves from what others in proximity to us are emoting. Other times, we want to catch the emotions we see and feel in others. Like with germs, there are steps we can take to decrease or increase our chances of becoming infected by emotions.
To reduce our vulnerability to negative emotions, we can:
- Be aware of people and situations that have a negative impact on our emotions. Awareness can be a good first step in diagnosing the source of negative emotions and making choices to protect ourselves.
- Limit the amount of time we spend with people who are chronically “infected” with negative emotions. When avoidance is not possible, we can at least take “attitude breaks” to focus on and engage in issues, topics, and experiences that lift our mood and counter the negativity to which we are being exposed.
- Speak with a person whose chronic emotional state is having a negative impact on us. Not everyone is aware of the attitude and mood patterns they display. Sometimes just making someone aware of their behavior and its impact can lead to change.
- Choose to be positive despite the negative emotions to which we are exposed. Over time, consciously emoting positivity, being optimistic, and showing care can have an impact on others, rather than allowing ourselves to be susceptible to the emotions to which they expose us.
- Take care of ourselves. Steps we take to counter vulnerability to germs can also help to protect us from negative emotions. Getting enough sleep and regular exercise and having a healthy diet can serve both purposes.
If we want to increase the likelihood of “catching” the positive, healthy emotions of others, we can:
- Increase the amount of time we spend and interact with people who are positive, confident, and caring, especially people about whom we care the most. People with whom we have close relationships are more likely to influence how we feel.
- Intentionally respond to the emotions we want to “catch.” For example, when we respond to the smiles of others, we engage muscles that release endorphins in our brain that lead us to feel happier.
- Be a source of positive emotions. Other people who are attracted to positive emotions will be more likely to engage and share their positivity with us.
- Structure time in gatherings, such as meetings, to share good news, positive experiences, and uplifting stories. What is shared can set a positive tone, push back negative attitudes, and reduce vulnerability.
Emotions, like germs, can influence our health and well-being. We need to be alert and deliberate in how we respond to exposure—whether we avoid it or invite it. We can allow ourselves to be vulnerable or protect ourselves from harm.
Teachers, feel free to share this concept with your students and foster a positive and constructive conversation about emotional self-preservation!